This article is from our Eighth Print Issue – more information available HERE.
The real divide in British politics is not really between left and right. It’s between the social and the liberal or, in other words, between the communitarian and the individualistic. Political parties arguing for the liberal position include the Conservatives (socially and economically liberal), the Liberal Democrats (socially and economically liberal) and Labour (socially liberal and partially – in their fondness for the EU – economically liberal). Parties arguing for socially and economically conservative positions include…
It was Margaret Thatcher who said there is no such thing as society. To be fair, this often-quoted comment should be set out in broader terms; ‘… there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.’ Look after themselves first… it doesn’t take a huge shift from there to arrive at a position in which it’s assumed that none of us owe very much to each other or indeed to wider society.
Mrs. Thatcher’s view could – and has been – taken as a highpoint of that species of liberalism masquerading as conservatism in which a combination of market fundamentalism and individualism are constantly prioritised over the social dimension. In the Conservative Party at least, this viewpoint predominates to this day and is the default setting of most senior members of the Party. And it’s why thinkers like the late Sir Roger Scruton and commentators such as Peter Hitchens despaired of the Tory Party long ago as a vehicle for any kind of conservatism worth the name.
As it turns out, the “Conservatives” have, in fact, conserved very little.
Instead, the party is viewed, rightly in my view, as an obstacle to conservatism. It is a liberal party. Sir Roger Scruton movingly defined conservatism as the desire to hold on to what you love – a fundamental human instinct. It entails resistance to change when that change involves loss of something we value; say, for example, the destruction of a building or town centre, the undermining of family life, a gradual loss of national consciousness or solidarity. As a political programme, this necessarily involves a commitment to holding a line against – resisting – change which represents loss.
However, for the past forty years or so the Conservative Party – together with New Labour – have been singularly unwilling to hold such lines and have, instead, actively sought to pursue a market-liberal agenda in which commercial interests, globalism and individual liberty are prioritised over communitarian or social instincts. Despite its left-wing pretensions, New Labour never made the case for Council House building. For the Conservatives, indifference to who runs our national railways is a prime example of market liberalism in action.
It’s not that the Conservatives are against the state running our railways per se. After all, Trenitalia, SNCF and Deutsche Bahn all do so.
They’re simply against the UK state doing so, which is curious, revealing and oddly unpatriotic. Over the past few decades, it has been virtually impossible for conservatives to hold a line in the social field and to argue the case, say, for important social institutions like the family. The family is not something our political class is very keen to talk about. As a result, the relationship between the family – our primary social/survival unit – and modern liberal politics is, necessarily, uneasy. Very few politicians are willing to speak up for the family in cultural discourse or to adopt policies aimed at strengthening or protecting family life.
The persistent neglect of house-building targets is a prime example of indifference to family orientated policy. Partly through fear of appearing judgemental and party through sheer indifference, the topic of family life or parenthood has been effectively taken off the political agenda. And in relation to critical debates such as the knife crime epidemic, it renders political discourse hopelessly superficial.
Lads, apparently, don’t actually need dads.
In an age of individualism, perhaps this is not surprising, but it has coincided with a crisis in family life which has imposed colossal social, financial and other costs on to the state and to wider society. Of course, the effects of family breakdown and the concomitant rise in crime and unhappiness are borne most acutely by those on low incomes. In this respect, it mirrors the damage done by permissive attitudes to drugs or gambling.
And, tellingly, elites promote liberalism to the public but tend to act conservatively in their own lives (ninety per cent of parents with young children in the top income quintile are married compared with just twenty-five per cent in the lowest quintile). In doing so they are, in other words, insulated from the liberalism they advocate. One is always drawn to G. K. Chesterton’s prophetic point – ‘modern broad-mindedness benefits the rich and benefits nobody else. It was meant to benefit the rich and meant to benefit nobody else.’
In any event, we have arrived at the unhappy situation in which a British sixteen-year-old child is more likely to have a screen in their room than a father in their house.
And yet, in politics, this is barely mentioned. Given the establishment parties’ indifference to things that obviously matter, the eventual retreat of different forms of liberalism as the defining ideology of Western states is inevitable. Various attitudes or dispositions are ‘baked into’ modern liberalism… hyper-individualism, a preoccupation with the self and self-realisation, a child-like belief in progress. Its consequences have been a general neglect of the family as the foundation of society, growing inequality caused by laissez-faire economics, the gradual atomisation of society and the fragmentation of civil association (e.g. the closure of pubs).
Economically, the inheritance of this form of hyper-globalism is closed steel mills, the loss of industrial jobs and, by way of compensation, supermarkets full of cheap goods produced elsewhere. As a governing system, it was bound to fail. Eventually, it will be replaced by post-liberal forms of political philosophy which will, once again, emphasise the importance of the group to the individual. Communitarian politics acknowledges the key role family and extended family have in our lives and making us who we are. It also recognises our connection to place, to society and our allegiance to country.
People are yearning for a sense of solidarity, mutuality and togetherness. A softer globalism beckons, one which respects the making of particular social and economic bargains at the level of the nation-state. The liberal project – with its roots in the Enlightenment ideas of Locke and Rousseau – is essentially utopian and experimental, believing – at its root – in the perfectibility of humankind. The conservative prefers a cautious but realistic route.
As Michael Oakeshott observed – ‘to be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.’ So, who will pick up the moderate, socially conservative torch in UK politics – a political position which probably commands a hidden majority of British people? Well, just when the outlook for a small ‘c’ conservative more communitarian politics seemed rather bleak, something interesting has happened.
In early 2018 The Social Democratic Party (hereafter ‘SDP’) – a surviving group of grassroots ‘Owenites’ that many thought had long gone – began to revive. The SDP started to convene serious activists and thinkers who share a family-orientated, communitarian, nation-state outlook. A tipping point came in November 2018; the SDP published its ‘New Declaration’ – a new manifesto which attracted former UKIP MEP Patrick O’Flynn to join. Membership has grown rapidly and now includes prominent journalists and former Labour Party members Giles Fraser and Rod Liddle.
For years voters have been offered a dreary choice between the liberalisms of left or right. The re-emergence of the SDP brings another option to the voting public but it also begs the question… who are the real conservatives – the small ‘l’ liberals within the Conservative Party, or the emerging Social Democrats?
Photo by Yorkshirian on Wikimedia Commons.